Polar Ice Caps: Temperature, Melting Effects & Facts

An error occurred trying to load this video.

Try refreshing the page, or contact customer support.

You're on a roll. Keep up the good work!

Take Quiz Watch Next Lesson
Your next lesson will play in 10 seconds
  • 0:02 What Are Polar Ice Caps?
  • 1:28 Melting Polar Ice Caps
  • 1:48 Sea Level
  • 2:35 Temperature
  • 3:44 Changes in Polar Ice Caps
  • 4:45 Lesson Summary
Create an account to start this course today
Try it free for 5 days!
Create An Account

Recommended Lessons and Courses for You

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Sarah Friedl

Sarah has two Master's, one in Zoology and one in GIS, a Bachelor's in Biology, and has taught college level Physical Science and Biology.

What are the polar ice caps? How do they regulate sea level and temperature on Earth? Polar bears aren't the only ones who should care about the melting of the polar ice caps. It's an issue that affects us all.

What Are Polar Ice Caps?

There is a lot of talk lately about the melting polar ice and its effects. But what is polar ice? And how does it affect our planet? A polar ice cap is a region of land at the North or South Pole of a planet that is covered with ice. Earth is not the only planet with polar ice caps; Mars also has them, though they are mostly frozen carbon dioxide.

Why are ice caps found at the poles? This has to do with the angle of sunlight reaching our round Earth. At the equator, sunlight hits the Earth at a 90° angle. This creates an environment of little variation in both temperature and hours of sunlight during the day.

In contrast, sunlight hits the polar regions at a more indirect angle. The same amount of sunlight reaches this part of Earth, but it gets spread out over a larger area, so the area receives less solar energy. You can see this with a flashlight. If you hold a flashlight vertically over a flat surface, you create a round, bright circle. If you tip the flashlight so that it is not exactly vertical, the circle of light elongates and decreases the intensity of the light. This happens because the same amount of light is spread over a greater area.

This limited solar energy makes for cold temperatures and very little precipitation (either rain or snow) all year round, which helps maintain the polar ice caps. Polar ice caps and glaciers hold more than three-quarters of the Earth's freshwater and provide feeding and resting platforms for polar bears, seals, and marine birds.

Melting Polar Ice Caps

The melting of the polar ice caps is caused by the overall increase in global temperature, and this melting can have serious consequences for all organisms on Earth. Besides being important for marine life, ice caps help regulate sea level and global temperatures.

Sea Level

Imagine that you have a cup of water and you place a large rock in the middle; the water is the ocean and the rock is a continent. If you place an ice cube on top of the rock, eventually it will melt into the 'ocean' around the rock, forcing water higher up around it. The same thing happens when polar ice caps melt. They melt directly into the ocean, increasing the volume of water and forcing seas higher onto land.

Not only does the melting of the ice caps increase the volume of water in the oceans, it also decreases the salinity, or salt content. Polar ice caps are made of fresh water, so adding more fresh water without adding more salt makes the ocean water less saline. This can cause problems for organisms that are well adapted to the very salty ocean waters.


It is very important that the polar ice caps are frozen because the snow they are covered with reflects a large amount of light back into space that would otherwise increase the overall temperature of Earth. So you can see this is a serious problem. The polar ice caps help keep Earth a nice temperature, but the melting of polar ice caps increases the rate of global warming.

Maintaining the Earth's temperature is very important to all the organisms that live in or around the polar ice caps. Despite being frozen and mostly covered with snow or ice, many small plants, invertebrates, and animals depend on the polar ice caps for food and shelter. Without the polar ice caps, many of these species would go extinct because they are well adapted to the climate and resources in these regions.

Polar ice cap melting also affects those who are very far from the polar regions. Without the ice caps, the middle United States would be several degrees warmer in the winter, preventing an annual freeze necessary for wheat growing. People in sub-polar regions are already being affected because fish, walruses, and seals are changing their migration patterns, which makes it difficult to hunt them.

To unlock this lesson you must be a Study.com Member.
Create your account

Register for a free trial

Are you a student or a teacher?
I am a teacher
What is your educational goal?

Unlock Your Education

See for yourself why 10 million people use Study.com

Become a Study.com member and start learning now.
Become a Member  Back

Earning College Credit

Did you know… We have over 49 college courses that prepare you to earn credit by exam that is accepted by over 2,000 colleges and universities. You can test out of the first two years of college and save thousands off your degree. Anyone can earn credit-by-exam regardless of age or education level.

To learn more, visit our Earning Credit Page

Transferring credit to the school of your choice

Not sure what college you want to attend yet? Study.com has thousands of articles about every imaginable degree, area of study and career path that can help you find the school that's right for you.

Click "next lesson" whenever you finish a lesson and quiz. Got It
You now have full access to our lessons and courses. Watch the lesson now or keep exploring. Got It
You're 25% of the way through this course! Keep going at this rate,and you'll be done before you know it.
The first step is always the hardest! Congrats on finishing your first lesson. Go to Next Lesson Take Quiz
Way to go! If you watch at least 30 minutes of lessons each day you'll master your goals before you know it. Go to Next Lesson Take Quiz
Congratulations on earning a badge for watching 10 videos but you've only scratched the surface. Keep it up! Go to Next Lesson Take Quiz
You've just watched 20 videos and earned a badge for your accomplishment! Go to Next Lesson Take Quiz
You've just earned a badge for watching 50 different lessons. Keep it up, you're making great progress! Go to Next Lesson Take Quiz
You just watched your 100th video lesson. You have earned a badge for this achievement! Go to Next Lesson Take Quiz
Congratulations! You just finished watching your 200th lesson and earned a badge! Go to Next Lesson Take Quiz
Congratulations! You just finished watching your 300th lesson and earned a badge! Go to Next Lesson Take Quiz
You are a superstar! You have earned the prestigious 500 video lessons watched badge. Go to Next Lesson Take Quiz
Incredible. You have just entered the exclusive club and earned the 1000 videos watched badge. Go to Next Lesson Take Quiz
You have earned a badge for watching 20 minutes of lessons.
You have earned a badge for watching 50 minutes of lessons.
You have earned a badge for watching 100 minutes of lessons.
You have earned a badge for watching 250 minutes of lessons.
You have earned a badge for watching 500 minutes of lessons.
You have earned a badge for watching 1000 minutes of lessons.